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Mark Richardson is a multimedia journalist, editor and writer who has worked in digital, print and broadcast media for three decades. He is a nationally recognized editor and reporter who has covered government, politics and the environment. A journalism graduate from the University of Texas at Austin, he was recently awarded a Foundation for Investigative Journalism grant and has three Associated Press Managing Editors awards for excellence in reporting.
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Report: County jail needs better medical facilities
Travis County’s correctional facilities have an adequate number of beds to handle its jail’s projected population for the next two decades, but current facilities for inmates with medical and mental health needs are acutely inadequate.
That was among the key findings of a System Needs Analysis and Master Plan Update for the Travis County Adult Correctional System presented by a team of consultants to Commissioners Court on Tuesday.
Representatives from Carter Goble Lee Associates, or CGL, Broaddus Planning and others gave Commissioners the preliminary findings of a six-month, in-depth examination of the Travis County Jail and the Travis County Correctional Complex in Del Valle, and how those facilities interact with the county’s judicial system.
Commissioners also used the opportunity to ask the consultants to look into the amount of overtime being used in the jail system. “That is the single most important issue that was unanswered going through our budget cycle this year,” said Commissioner Gerald Daugherty. “I’m not sure whose list it ought to be on, but we need the answer to that question.”
The study examined Travis County’s court system, jail activity, jail release and length of stay and inmate profiles, as well as key findings on capacity, health services, inmate programs and staffing. Tuesday’s report was a preliminary review of the consultants’ findings. They plan to return in a few months with a complete Needs Analysis and begin work on a Master Plan Update.
Laura Maiello, vice president and project director with CGL, said, “The two main areas we were asked to look at are the factors driving jail bed space demand so we can project into the future what the bed space requirements are for Central Booking and 48-hour Holding, as well as the Travis County Correctional Complex in Del Valle. The second element we were asked to look at … is what are some of the factors impacting the jail facility.”
According to the report, capacity in the two facilities is sufficient in terms of the number of beds, but the type of beds don’t completely line up with needs, such as those of inmates with medical and mental health issues, female inmates and youthful offenders. The report finds that the facilities are not keeping pace with the rise in the number of medical and mental health cases in the jail population, citing critical deficiencies in housing, mental health staffing, nursing manpower and up-to-date equipment.
The report also found that the Travis County Sheriff’s Office, which operates the facilities, has more overall corrections staff than it needs, but by only a small amount. Additionally, the report shows that some operations are understaffed and some are overstaffed, pointing out that departments that deal with transportation of inmates have the greatest need for additional workers.
A major factor affecting jail operations, according to the report, is that the number of reported crimes and arrests has remained relatively stable since 2004, with a gradual decrease in the past three years. The consultants’ research showed that although Travis County’s population grew more than 25 percent between 2002 and 2012, the number of arrests dropped by almost 2 percent. It also found that both property and violent crime only grew at an annual rate of about 1 percent between 2002 and 2012.
The report said that if those trends hold, the corrections system’s current capacity of 2,820 beds should be sufficient to handle the inmate population through 2035.
The report also profiled the current inmate population. It found that on any given day in the Travis County correctional system, 87 percent of the inmates are male, 38 percent are Hispanic and 62 percent are age 35 and under. It said that 75 percent of those housed in the jail facility are awaiting trial, with 22 percent having been sentenced. Of those sentenced, 76 percent are in for felony convictions. The report also noted that ICE holds occupy only 2 percent of jail beds.
Commissioners were generally pleased with the report, but they again pursued the question that if the correctional operations were slightly overstaffed, why did they generate so much overtime pay? Judge Sam Biscoe echoed Daugherty’s earlier concerns.
“I guess my question would be, in places where too much overtime has been used historically, that they have been able to fix it, how did they do it?” he said. “We’ve been talking about that at least 12 years.”
CGL Managing Director Alan Richardson said, “I think what we found, if I can speak (for the) team, relative to overtime, there’s no smoking gun, no one factor. It’s a combination of many factors.”
Richardson added that while overtime issues were not part of the original study, the consultants would investigate where the problem is occurring and come back to the Court with recommendations.
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